Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph?

It has been a while since I have taken a firm stance on some bit of typographic minutia that most normal people don’t care about, so today, I’m writing about whether you should indent the first line of the first paragraph when laying out narrative text. Get ready for a wild ride, similar to previous posts on drop caps, double spacing after a period, and the serial comma. (For those of you who are really into this sort of thing, I have created a category called “Typographic Minutiae” in our sidebar. Tell your friends!)

Not long ago, I was in a meeting with a freelance client whom I had not worked with before. I was nodding at comments and suggestions while going over the first draft of a newsletter: “Take all of the text from this Russian novel and put it on page 3.” Nod nod nod. “And in all the leftover space make this 50-pixel-wide photo huge.” Nod nod nod. “And use 17 different styles for these headlines.” Nod nod nod. “And indent the first line of the first paragraph in these blocks of text.” Screeching record-scratch sound.

To give you a visual of what I’m talking about, see the examples above. (Thanks to Bleacher Report for the text.) I have always set the first paragraph of a block of text, either at the very beginning of a passage or after a subhead, flush left, including the first line, as with the example on the left.

I remember a graduate school professor explaining it like this: You indent to indicate a new paragraph. There’s no reason to indent the first paragraph because it’s obvious that it’s a new paragraph since it’s the first one. Now go design a ball that is really a mask that will save the world. (Grad school was weird.)

Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, which many designers consider the Bible of typography, says it like this:

The function of a paragraph indent is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted.

If Robert Bringhurst is not an authoritative enough source for you, Wikipedia says this: “Professionally printed material typically does not indent the first paragraph, but indents those that follow.”

As with all typographic styles, if you follow a specific style guide, you should defer to it. (And whatever style you follow, be sure to follow it consistently rather than mixing and matching.) There are some style guides that say you should indent the first line of all paragraphs, including the first one. For instance, most newspapers follow the Associated Press style guide, which calls for indenting the first line of all paragraphs. That said, I have always hated AP style because 98 percent of its guidelines are intended more for saving money on ink than actual clarity of language. (Most newspapers also fully justify (on the right and the left) narrow columns of text, which looks ridiculous, so if that’s your model for good design, best of luck to you.)

Ultimately, it’s not incorrect to indent the first line of the first paragraph of narrative text. People aren’t going to point and laugh if you do it. But in my estimation, left justifying the entire first paragraph is one of those subtle nuances that sets professional design apart from amateur design.

16 thoughts on “Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph?

  1. Paul, please don’t take this the wrong way, but this post excites me! I haven’t really noticed this before. I mean, yes, I’ve noticed whether a magazine article is indented paragraph form or block paragraph form (with or without drop caps), but I’ve never noticed that many magazines indent all paragraphs except the first one under a title or heading. I erroneously thought that you could choose either syle (indent all paragraphs or don’t indent any), as long as you are consistent.

    As soon as I read your gripping post, I peeled myself away from my computer screen and started opening magazines and journals. Pretty much all of them are the way you describe above (as you do in Legacy Magazine), and all the others are block form where every paragraph is left justified (with some variations with drop caps, though).

    I feel like my eyes see the world in new and exciting ways, just like when I first climbed rope in gym class.

  2. A Wayne’s World reference in an IBD comment? Cal, you are indeed the chosen one.

  3. Now that I have found it and read it, I must say this was great stuff and I liked it. I did not get all excited like The Chosen One, but I did get a warm fuzzy feeling all over. Then again, that might just be the result of all the food I have eaten recently.

    I usually have no idea what Paul and Shea talk about when they actually write about design and not baseball, family or food, but this all made sense. In the future, I will try to follow this simple and well-explained design element. Wonder if that will make people stop laughing at me or if that will make me a professional?

    After reading this, it confirmed that I am not the only one who hates the No-Good Stinkin’ Yankees and that I dot use the word “Minutiae” often enough.

  4. I probably learned all of this years ago, but forgot, especially since I prefer not to indent any paragraphs now, and just space between them. Thanks for the reminder. Now I’ll have to go back and look at some old publications I put together, when I did indent paragraphs, and check and see if the top paragraph is indented.

    And I agree with your comment about full justification in narrow newspaper columns looking silly.

  5. Yes, what do you have to say about not indenting at all and just adding an extra line between paragraphs. I happen to like the extra line–introduces more white space into an interp panel.

  6. I hate indented paragraphs because with print smaller than 10 point (a great many places) they just don’t show up and keeping my eye flowing with the text is difficult.

    I solve the problem to not indenting anything and using a space between paragraphs. But I believe in white space!

  7. I’m curious why no indentation happened in the above blog post though…
    This blog is absolutely hilarious, and I appreciate all the grammatical references (which I suppose means something). I’ve shared it with many friends, some who think I’m crazy, and others, like me, find it fantastic!

  8. Heather, thanks for your kind words, and you make a terrific point.

    I should have said specifically that I was writing here about printed media rather than online. Online, it’s more typical to see the block style paragraphs (with full line breaks between paragraphs and no indentation), in large part because online you want to create as much white space as possible to make reading easier on the eyes.

  9. Robinne, I thought about that I was writing that comment and wondered if I should explain further, so thanks for calling me on it.

    White space is of the utmost importance online, to the point where it affects your writing (short paragraphs are key), because looking at a screen is harder than looking at printed materials.

    The block style is acceptable in printed material, especially in shorter passages (like in an exhibit), but in long, narrative passages (like in a magazine or book), I’d stick with the more traditional indented paragraphs without the line space (except, of course, in the first paragraph).

    As I pointed out on the NAI Facebook page, you have to be careful with the block style in a publication because it can cause confusion when a paragraph ends at the bottom of a page and a new one starts at the top of the next page. (It could look like one paragraph.)

  10. Some texts, in addition to indenting for paragraphs, use spacing after the end of a subsection within a chapter, to mark a major shift in scene, for example. If that end happens to occur at the bottom of the page, they use a dingbat or two or three to flag this. Or a short line.

    This could be used in non-indented, block-style text, too, if the end of the paragraph at the bottom of the page is not obvious. For example, if the sentence ends halfway across the line, it is pretty evident the paragraph is done.

    The goal in all typography, layout, style, grammar, and spelling is simply to communicate ideas in the most effective way possible. We should never forget that. Slavish adherence to somebody’s dictum is only useful if it will help us connect with readers. A little experience with the advice of various authorities shows that there is an awful lot they don’t agree on. For many aspects of visual communication, even grammar (especially grammar?), there are contradictory “rules” from different sources.

    One factor in deciding which advice we follow is the expectations of the audience. We might choose to give them exactly what most of the members are most used to, especially if we think deviance will divert attention away from the message. Upside down text in an Old English font would attract attention, but unless it has a purpose related to the message (you were discussing a fifteenth century clergyman who could only read upside down, perhaps?), it would only annoy.

    Or we might deliberately choose to defy their expectations, if we think this will give the material a freshness to it. Youthful or “hip” audiences might be attracted to an unusual design. They might find text in a display that is slanted in unusual directions, for example, to be exciting and worth reading, while more standard arrangements get dismissed as BOR-ING!

    Of course, the more general the audience, the harder it will be to create material that will really excite everyone. Create a unique new style, and part of your audience will grumble about the new style. After people get used to encountering that same style, another segment of your audience will yawn and turn away. They’ve seen it before. So there is a tension between attraction to novelty and stability. In general, younger audiences are probably more likely to be interested in the novel, older ones are less interested in change for the sake of change.

    As to how this relates to paragraph indenting: with an increasing portion of the potential audience reading online, many of our readers may now be more used to seeing block-style paragraphs, and indenting them without spacing between in print publications could itself look odd, or worse, old-fashioned, to the younger generation. This is one factor we may wish to consider.

    Horrific for many of us to consider is that there might come a time when we dispense with capitalization in publications for youth, used to texting in all lower-case. It will look like laziness to us, but the Germans probably think English is lazy for not bothering to capitalize all nouns. And there are scripts which have no capitals; the beginnings of sentences are determined by context and punctuation. Just as the convention that Paul advocates in this blog, not indenting the first paragraph, can be justified on a logical basis (saves a bit of space, and pun intended), so could a no capitalization style be logically advocated (saves a bit of space, not needed because of punctuation cues, faster to type).

    Thus endeth the sermon.

  11. You know, there’s actually a secondary issue here that’s worth mentioning: this discussion assumes a flush-left heading. With a heading that is flush-left, the first line looks awkward if it is indented because it is inconsistent with the heading, and it feels like it ought to be visually consistent, given that the heading is otherwise visually tied to the block margin-wise.

    If the heading is centered on the page (or right justified), I prefer the first paragraph to be consistent with the other paragraphs—that is to say, indented if they are indented because the title is no longer providing a left bound for that leading paragraph to be consistent with.

    Similarly, if there is no heading or a centered section marker, as might occur at a minor section break, I prefer the first paragraph to be inset unless it is otherwise styled with a drop cap or some other distinguishing style that looks ridiculous when indented. To have a gap followed by a plain, ordinary unindented block paragraph in content that otherwise uses leading indents on every paragraph just looks odd to me, and always has.

  12. I was wondering what would be the ideal standard for printed novels, where there is a new paragraph almost every line (different characters speaking).
    Indenting every paragraph sometimes makes entire pages of indented lines, or worse, almost entire pages, with the odd non indented line, continuation of the previous one, sticking out and getting all the visual attention.
    It is really dilemma for me now, what do you thik is best?

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